‘The end of the goddamn family dog’

Pub date February 24, 2009

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Former Bottom of the Hill and DNA Lounge doorperson Greg Slugocki wakes up every morning at 4 a.m. to feed and care for 75 rescued dogs at Milo Sanctuary, one of the largest dog and cat rescue sanctuaries in the country. It’s one-third the size of Golden Gate Park and tucked in the mountains of Mendocino County, north of Ukiah.

Slugocki has worked like a dog since he was hired last November, part of a crew of two who cover 283 acres of mountainous terrain. But it’s something else that has recently made his head spin.

"The rate of animals we’ve had to take because of foreclosures is astronomical," Slugocki said. "I’ve taken more dogs in the last three months than in the last two years."

Milo Sanctuary holds adoptions in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Rafael, and he communicates daily with Bay Area shelters and rescues, which also have reported unprecedented increases in animals reluctantly turned over by their desperate owners.

Slugocki may be in the backwoods of Mendocino County, but he’s not alone in this dilemma. Shelters all over the country are reporting rising numbers of dogs, cats, horses, and all kinds of family pets made homeless by the home foreclosure crisis.

In January, San Francisco Animal Care and Control — the municipal shelter and adoption department obligated to take all animals — documented, for the first time, an unprecedented increase in owner-surrendered animals. The report found that since August 2008, there’s been steady monthly increase in such animals, amounting to a 13 percent average rise since last year. Last month saw the highest number of owner-surrendered animals, with an increase of 35 percent.

Though there may not be a clear, quantifiable way of determining whether those owner-surrendered animals are in fact casualties of the foreclosure crisis, animal rescue folks say there is overwhelming anecdotal evidence that this is the case. "Our rescue partners are stretched," SFACC director Rebecca Katz told the Guardian. "We’re stretched."

Indeed, almost every kennel contains a dog with a tag reading "owner- surrender." Animal Care and Control runs a "no kill" shelter — which means animals are euthanized only if they are too sick to be treated or too aggressive to qualify for adoption — has had to spill some of its new arrivals over into its adoption kennels rather than give all the new arrivals a chance for the owners to reclaim them.

"I’ve been dealing with this shelter for 15 years," said Paley Boucher, founder of volunteer-run Rocket Dog rescue, which saves almost 200 dogs from lethal injection each year. "It used to stand out when you saw a dog that was owner-surrendered. But now almost all of them are." Linda Pope with Nike Animal Rescue Foundation says dogs adopted and returned due to foreclosures is an entirely new phenomenon to the center.

Cat Brown, deputy director of the San Francisco SPCA, reported a rise in owner-surrendered animals. "We feel it’s directly related to the economy," she added. "It’s about people losing their jobs and thinking about what they can give up."

Gary Tiscornia, executive director of Monterey County’s SPCA, says there have been a high number of foreclosure animals and a lack of communication between the shelters and the banks, real estate agents, property inspectors, and other entities that find abandoned animals in vacated homes.

Tiscornia said that Realtors in California have found animals in all kinds of conditions in vacated homes, including rottweillers abandoned with a few bags of food and a tub of water, and a dog left for dead in an empty house. It hasn’t always been the case that such incidents were reported to animal shelters.

The disconnect between corporate entities and shelters has been exacerbated by California laws requiring that inspected property, including animals, be left untouched. A new law that went into effect last month addresses the problem. Assembly Bill 2949 requires anyone who encounters an abandoned animal in a property that has been vacated through lease termination or foreclosure to immediately contact a local animal control agency.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) issued a statement on foreclosure animals Jan. 29, offering the following advice to those facing foreclosure or eviction: Check with friends, family and neighbors to see if someone can provide temporary foster care for your pet until you get back on your feet. Make sure pets are allowed — and get permission in writing — if you are moving into a rental property. Contact your local shelter, humane society, or rescue group in advance of moving, and provide your animal’s records to help it get placed in an appropriate home.

To love and lose a home is a hard thing, but to love and lose a home and a furry family member is worse, especially when people don’t know where their pet will end up. "People don’t know what to do," said Boucher, citing an example of a Bay Area woman who kept her dog in the backyard of her foreclosed home long after she had moved, and another of a family that asked the subsequent owners of their foreclosed home to care for their dog.

"We’re perceived as a no-kill city, but that’s just not true," said Boucher, who rescues pit pulls, the most frequently euthanized of all dogs. Like many rescue agents, Boucher disagrees with the standards set by the temperament tests that determine whether a dog is suitable for adoption, arguing that many perfect dogs would not pass the test.

Slugocki also takes issue with temperament tests. "Let’s say I’m a dog that hasn’t eaten for weeks and I get picked up and taken to a shelter and they put down a bowl of food as part of the temperament test. Take it away and see what I’ll do."

"This is a huge disaster, a quiet emergency," Boucher said. "I hope people can open their minds to fostering an animal."

Despite the spike in economy-related homeless animals, Katz says SFACC is still under control, at least for the time being. "We have not seen an increase in euthanasia and we hope not to." About 84 percent of animals that end up at the SF shelter are saved, compared to the depressing national average of 30 percent.

"We do everything we can to save animals’ lives. We reach out to every rescue we know of," Katz said.

But with shelters, rescues, and sanctuaries swamped with a growing wave of owner-surrendered pets, caring for the displaced animals is bound to get tougher, particularly if foreclosure crisis gets worse, as many economists predict. And with budget cuts in the offing in the city, SFACC staff fear cutbacks could drive up euthanasia rates.

Slugocki says his sanctuary has something other shelters don’t: space. He has 283 redwood-adorned majestic acres of it, and he’s willing to take every dog, no matter how many have failed the temperament tests that would guarantee a swift lethal injection at the pound.

"I can take dogs that don’t stand a chance. I can take them crippled, heart worm positive, deaf, blind, you name it," Slugocki said. Half of the 75 dogs at Milo are unadoptable and will live peacefully among the redwoods for the rest of their days. He says he can take up to 1,000 dogs but he’s missing one thing: sufficient staff to build enough dog pens and feed and care for a small city of dogs every day.

"I desperately need volunteers," Slugocki said. "I know there is a crowd of people, that 30 to 60 tattooed, pierced, old rock ‘n’rollers, new Buddhists, lifelong punks who are older and maybe have kids now." For now he’s taking as many dogs as he has pens for and is working 14-hour days to help save the discarded critters of the economic crisis.

"It’s the end of the goddamn family dog," Slugocki lamented. "Nobody who has a dog and has lost a home will ever think about having a dog again."

To contact Greg Slugocki, call (707) 459-0930 or email milo.sanctuary@yahoo.com.